One spring morning a few years back I was walking my two younger daughters up DC’s Northampton Street to Lafayette Elementary School. Rose held one hand, Claire the other.
Rose stopped halfway there.
“If I close my eyes, will you walk me up safely?” she asked. “Can I trust you?”
It was the first school year after my wife and I had split up, and I was now in charge. Rose was ten and a bit unsettled. She needed to know: Could I take care of her?
“Sure,” I said. “Close your eyes.”
We took about a dozen small steps. We had to pass a tree on our right, and the bad boy inside me started to whisper: “Walk her into the tree.”
I resisted the impulse. A few steps later Rosie tired of the test, opened her eyes, and smiled.
I am not a single father for my three daughters. My ex-wife and I share parenting duties as evenly as possible, but I do live with our girls most of the week. Those days, it’s mostly me—breakfasts, trips to school, forgotten lunches, upset tummies, messy rooms, victories on the soccer field, frustrations in the classroom—the everyday stuff of raising children. I have a lot of respect for single parents, male or female.
The typical man thinks about getting ahead; I think about getting dinner.
“Single parent” often means “single mother,” but that’s less the rule. Fathers often find themselves in the role of principal parent, by choice or by circumstance. When a family breaks up because of divorce, it is no longer a forgone conclusion that the mother will get custody. Judges are more inclined to split custody between father and mother.
The result is that there are more dads bringing home the bacon, making the dinner, helping with the homework, getting the kids to bed.
The 2000 census highlighted the trend. From 1970 to 2000 the number of single fathers rose from 393,000 to 2.2 million.
Here are the stories of four men and their children.
“Always bring extra balloons”
Jack Evans is inundated. He’s preparing to chair a meeting of the DC Council’s finance committee in a few hours.
Healthcare lobbyists congregate in his front office. An aide shows up with a note about a call he must return “right now.”
How much time do I have for this interview? He looks at his watch.
“About 45 minutes,” he says. “I have to run up to school for a meeting with the kids’ teachers.”
Three kids. Three teachers. One parent.
Evans’s triplets have been part of his day and at the top of his mind since his wife, Noel, died of breast cancer in 2003. Most people wonder if the five-term DC Council member can fulfill his dream of becoming mayor; Evans worries about making lunches and missing Valentine’s Day parties at school.
“I need a plan for this summer or I’m screwed,” he tells me. He means camp and vacation plans for the children, not fundraising plans for the next campaign.
Katherine, John, and Christine were born on November 18, 1996. Jack and Noel had no family living in the area to help care for the triplets. “It was tough,” he says, “but they were sleeping through the night by the time they were six months old.
“Dads always get a bad rap,” he says. “They are always accused of not doing enough.” He jabs his index finger into his palm: “I changed diapers. I fed bottles at night. I served dinner in the evening. I read Goodnight Moon every night. We took walks every Sunday in Montrose Park. We still do.
“I ran for mayor in 1998—so I could get out of the house.”
One winter Sunday he was leaving the family’s Georgetown house with the toddlers in a triple stroller when he realized one was missing a mitten. He ran back inside. The stroller started rolling down the sidewalk. It rolled to the curb, then over the curb, dumping the triplets into the street just as Evans reached the scene. “I got the worst-dad-of-the-week award,” Evans says.
By January 2001, the children were in prekindergarten, Noel had gone back to work selling real estate, and they had sent out Christmas cards with a photo of everyone, including the golden retriever. “I thought life couldn’t be better,” he says.
In March, Noel was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer. Doctors told Evans she might have six months, maybe two years. He thought, “How can life be that unfair?”
Noel’s therapy sapped her strength and patience. He gradually began taking over her duties. He became the morning parent. Noel’s friends and family, his staff, and the Georgetown community became his support system. But he became the chief operating officer of the family.
Noel died in September 2003. Family and friends gathered to mourn and celebrate.
“Everybody leaves eventually,” Evans says. “Then I faced the shock of living alone with three kids.”
He hurtled into the first birthday and holiday season without Noel. He turned 50 on Halloween and celebrated with a beer on his stoop with his buddy Bill Hall. He tried to smile through the children’s birthday on November 18. He took them to Noel’s sister’s house for Thanksgiving. They returned to their house in Georgetown.
“Then the pictures started talking to me,” he says.
On Noel’s birthday, December 12, they took helium balloons to Montrose Park, wrote notes on them and watched them float into the sky.
“It was a learning experience,” says Evans. “Always bring extra balloons. A few will break.”
Evans, 52, smiles the manic smile that often confounds his political adversaries. How does he maintain his sense of humor?
“I guess I have a basically optimistic personality,” he says. “You have to face things and overcome them.”
His children, now nine, have gotten used to life with Dad. Every night before school the ritual begins. Homework done? Backpacks ready? Soccer gear where it should be? Notes to teachers written and tucked in binders?
Evans wakes the trio at 6:30. They dress and get ready for the day.
“They became self-sufficient long before other kids have to,” he says.
He serves them breakfast and makes sure they get on the bus at 7:45. Back at the house, he often spies a lost mitten or forgotten lunch or missing math paper and has to race back out the door.
“I have chased the bus down the street and around the corner—and caught it,” he says. “I have missed it and followed it all the way to school.”
He has help from a nanny, he says, “but somebody has to be in charge. Someone has to know what’s happening every minute of their day. No slight on dads, but they tend to fall off and forget about their children once they leave for work. I know where they are all the time.”
One Valentine’s Day he went to school to see Katherine perform in a play. Before the performance he stopped by John’s room and walked in on his party. He saw kids and moms and candy and cards but no John. He searched the room and found him curled up in his cubby. Evans asked why. John said, “I didn’t think you were going to come.”
One day last year Christine pulled his sleeve and said she had a question. He bent down to her eye level. “We’re doing all right, aren’t we?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I think so.”
How to do double dutch—and braid hair
When his daughter, Joclyn, was three years old, Calvin Young would take her for a stroll in their Fort Lincoln neighborhood, and neighbors would stop and marvel at her meticulous cornrows.
“Who did her hair?” they would ask.
“I did,” Young would answer.
“Is there something you want to tell us?” they would say.
Young was an athletic 28-year-old, the driver of a Brinks armored car.
“What do you mean?” he would say.
What they meant was that black men don’t do hair. Unless they are training to be a hairdresser.
Young didn’t take offense. He just strolled on with Joclyn at his side and Calvin Jr. in his arms.
“They all thought I was crazy,” he says. “They didn’t think I could raise two toddlers by myself.”
He wasn’t so sure himself.
Young was born and raised in DC. His father was a chemist for the US Department of Agriculture. His mother taught school. His parents thought he should go to college away from home. He went to Texas A&I and got a degree in political science and psychology. And he fell in love with a student from a small Texas town. They got married and had Joclyn.
They moved back to Washington. She got a job at Chevy Chase Bank, he with Brinks. They had Calvin Jr. Two years after they settled in DC, his wife told Young she didn’t want to be married any longer. She moved out.
“She couldn’t find a way to make her lifestyle fit into this story,” he says without anger. “She lost interest in the children. Her life didn’t revolve around them. Mine did. I was in total disbelief. I still can’t believe it happened.”
A friend advised him to file for full custody. His wife did not show up in court.
Young began gently jostling the children awake in the morning, getting them dressed and off to the babysitter. He worked his eight-hour shift for Brinks. He picked them up in the afternoon, took them home, fed them dinner, put them to bed. His parents were living in Baltimore. His mother came down on weekends.
“She wanted to make sure I wasn’t losing my mind,” he says.
She went into the family library, dug out a dog-eared copy of Mother Goose stories, and brought it one Saturday. “You’re going to need this,” she said. And he did, every night, twice—once for each child.
Calvin Young is not active in his church, Mount Pleasant Baptist, but he went every Sunday and sat in the balcony. “I got my message and went home,” he says. “It was my spiritual rock, something to hold onto.”
The neighbors who noticed his talent for handling Joclyn’s hair also saw him handling one end of the jump rope.
“I learned it from my older sister,” he says. “My parents always made me stay by her side when I went out to play. So I learned how to do double dutch.”
And how to braid hair.
His friends and family encouraged him to start dating, to find a mother figure for his toddlers. Every time he thought about that possibility, he thought about the little boy who grew up next door.
“He lived with his mother, just the two of them,” Young says. “Men would come around and spend time with his mom. They would buy him presents—a new baseball mitt or a football. A month later they would be gone. My buddy would say, ‘I can’t believe he’s gone. I just got to know him.’
“I didn’t want to put my kids through losing another mother figure,” he says.
He did meet a woman who interested him. They began to spend time together. She really liked Joclyn and Calvin Jr. One day she showed up with a new wardrobe for each child. Young made her take back the clothes. He never saw her again.
“I thought that was for the best,” he says.
Which didn’t prepare him for the worst, like potty-training two toddlers at one time. Calvin Jr. didn’t walk or talk or do much else before he was three. Young had him tested to see whether he was developing properly.
“I asked myself, ‘Do I want to do this anymore? Is it worth it?’ ”
One day little Calvin stood up, walked across the room, and asked in a complete sentence, “How you doing, Dad?”
Every Sunday afternoon they would sit down at the kitchen table, plan their meals for the week, and make a shopping list. Friday was pizza. Saturday was Chinese. Sunday was a picnic.
When Joclyn was in Spingarn High School, Calvin Young opened a letter one day and found an invitation to an awards ceremony at George Washington University for DC students showing academic achievement.
“I realized all my talk about studying had sunk in and paid off,” he says.
Once Calvin Jr. got the hang of walking, he moved quickly to running the base paths. Young started him off with T-ball, then coached his Little League team. The first time I met them, Dad was hitting line drives to Calvin at shortstop. At 17, Calvin Jr., a starting pitcher at DC’s Eastern High, was just accepted into the National Honor Society.
Joclyn, 18, is studying to be a nurse at Howard University. Young can remember one morning when she was nine years old and he went into the bathroom to offer to braid her hair.
“Thanks for your help, Dad,” she told him. “But I can do my own hair now.”
And he thought, what a relief.
All day with Kerry—and all the nannies
John McCaslin and his daughter, Kerry, had hiked three days in the snowcapped mountains of British Columbia when she served up a challenge: “Let’s reach a peak.”
Kerry was 13. McCaslin was 43, in okay shape. Their guide said they would need ice axes, ropes, and helmets.
“No way,” McCaslin told her.
But the guide, world-renowned mountaineer Ian Campbell, countered:“If your daughter is going to attempt a mountain for the first time, wouldn’t you rather she do it with an experienced guide rather than a bunch of her friends?”
They chose Mount Serendipity. At sunrise the next day they roped up—first the guide, then Kerry, then McCaslin. She scampered, he crawled—until he heard her giggling.
“Dad,” Kerry said, “you can get up off your knees now. You’re at the top.”
McCaslin says, “Truth be told, Kerry was pulling me up. I could not have made it to the top without her.”
Kerry and McCaslin have been pulling each other through since she was three, when her mother remarried and moved away. They realized it was best for Kerry to remain with McCaslin in Old Town Alexandria, his hometown, with her mother visiting frequently. Kerry enrolled in St. Mary’s, the school McCaslin and his brothers attended.
“Kerry and I have had an amazing relationship since she was born,” McCaslin says. “I became night editor at the Washington Times, working a shift from 4 pm to midnight. So I had all day with her—and all the nannies at the playground—eating ice cream, changing diapers. We had prime time. I didn’t want to leave her.”
So they made a life together.
McCaslin made lunches, washed clothes, gave baths, braided hair, coached soccer. He found a new appreciation and respect for single mothers.
“I became a parent first, a journalist second,” McCaslin says.
He would take Kerry to school, go to DC to work on his political column, titled Inside the Beltway, and return to pick her up in Old Town.
“There was hardly a day in ten years where I was not there to pick her up from school,” he says. “I never had a nanny. The mothers, I recall, were a bit intrigued. I believe I was the only father to drop off and pick up. She never greeted me without flashing a huge smile. There’s no better feeling.”
One day he was on the sideline at a soccer game when he overheard some parents talking about him. “A young girl should be with her mother,” one said. McCaslin walked over and politely disagreed.
Kerry did soccer and karate and softball and basketball and lacrosse. She plays lacrosse goalie for Episcopal High School. “She’s blossoming into her late teen years with bruises on her shins,” he says.
McCaslin and Kerry’s mother found a way to cooperate, to rotate holidays, to make peace. Now they talk almost every day about Kerry.
“You can’t fight,” he says. “It puts the child in the middle.”
Still, McCaslin wonders at times if he has done the right thing by remaining a single parent. “It might not be perfect,” he says, “but something feels so right about it.
“The hardest thing is to see her grow up,” he says. Kerry has just been accepted to college: “I miss the times when she was a little girl.”
Maintaining the rituals—and moving on
Pete Lustig has mornings down to a science—almost. He wakes Jack and Lily at 7. They goof around for a bit. Still in pajamas, they come down for breakfast—cereal and Pop-Tarts, usually. The guys talk sports. Jack is nine and follows baseball. Lily, seven, might fiddle with an art project. Then it’s back upstairs in their Cleveland Park home. Pete helps them get dressed. They race back down, grab their backpacks, and jump in the car for the short ride to school.
Lustig circles back to the house to pick up the pieces of the morning, to make sure Jack and Lily have plans after school, to contemplate dinner.
“I have organized my work so that I could be home all the time if the kids needed me,” he says. “There’s so much to running a family. I’m getting damn good at it.”
Anne Lustig succumbed to a brain tumor three years ago. They knew it was coming. But Peter wasn’t prepared to be a single parent. “Not even remotely,” he says. “Emotionally, I never accepted it. You cannot be ready.”
Lustig runs a small development company. No one would describe him as sweet and gentle—he’s more like tough and gruff. When the children were born, he worked harder. Anne worked, too, as an executive producer at Discovery Channel; she also ran the house.
“I had to learn all the things Anne did,” he says. “Picking schools, arranging activities, organizing their lives. That was not something I usually did. They needed to go to the dentist. That’s something that never would have occurred to me.”
“What am I going to do?” he asked as he lay awake at night. “I am not prepared for this.”
He took a few months off work. He got a new calendar. He made lists. “I scheduled my activities around theirs,” he says. He got plenty of help from sympathetic mothers and the community around Sheridan School and National Child Research Center, where the children were enrolled.
Lustig maintained the rituals he and Anne had established: Christmas with the extended family, summer vacation on Cape Cod, a house full of art and art projects. But time passes, and children grow up and develop new rituals.
“Keeping Anne involved in their lives is very important to me,” Lustig says, “keeping her memory alive and at the same time managing their grief and their ability to mourn—and my own.”
As much as possible, Lustig tries to keep it a family of four. When Jack scored his first soccer goal, Lustig told him how proud his mom would have been. When Lily made a presentation in kindergarten about a whale-watching trip, Lustig told her Anne would have loved it. The kids make birthday and Mother’s Day cards for Anne. They always eat bacon on her birthday; it was her favorite.
“I tell them that she is still with us, always will be,” he says. “I also believe that.” In essence, he and Anne are still co-parenting.
A few days before Lustig’s last birthday in April, Jack and Lily got help from some of his friends and planned a surprise dinner. He came home to balloons and dinner and birthday cake.
“It was just us,” he says. “I felt so close to them and so proud that they could reach out and help me as I have helped them. We are a tight little unit.”
National editor Harry Jaffe covers politics, crime, business, and media. He writes the monthly Post Watch column. He also makes breakfast and packs lunches most days.